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THOUSANDS of teenagers are packing their bags to set off for university or college this weekend. And sixth-formers are taking the first step in the process that will lead them there next year.

Over the next few weeks they will sit down to fill in a four-page form that will be their CV for a place at a university or college.

This is the application form from the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS), the gateway to higher education for most students.

UCAS spokesman Ross Hayman says: 'Virtually every university and college fill their places through us.' Having one admissions system has many advantages for students and universities.

Students have a single point of contact and can put down a selection of seats of learning on the form instead of having to apply to several.

The bonus for universities and colleges is that they do not have the cost of producing their own admissions forms. They

October and November and several truckloads of mail always arrive on the December 15 deadline.' Most youngsters fill in the traditional UCAS form, but over the past two years UCAS has introduced the Electronic Application System (EAS), which is proving popular.

'EAS is now fully network-compatible and this year there has been a lot more take-up,says Hayman. 'More than 3,000 schools and colleges around the world use this system.' EAS is foolproof. The form is checked electronically and wrong course codes and dates of birth will be spotted.

The system also allows students to fill in details on screen and to make changes before they send off the final form.

Once UCAS has checked the application forms for mistakes and added relevant codes, they reproduce them and send them on to universities.

Despite the huge numbers of applications, the time taken to get them out is short. 'If students apply on paper it can take about three weeks to process. If they apply electronically we can turn it round in three days,' says Hayman.

Future changes to the applications procedure may include reducing the number of course choices from six to four. This should simplify and speed up the applications process.

UCAS recently looked at the possibilities for a system that does not rely on predicted A-Level results.

Exam papers would have to be marked earlier and students would apply to universities after their results were known.

This idea received a lukewarm response from universities and has been shelved for the time being. Although UCAS deals with the majority of higher education applications, some courses have separate application systems. For example, nurs-can also make their choice of students known through UCAS, saving them the time, trouble and expense of having to contact them individually.

Most students have until December 15 to get their applications to UCAS in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

Many forms have already arrived, but Hayman says: 'It starts to get busy during

ing students taking non-degree courses apply through the Nursing and Midwifery Admissions Service (NMAS). And students aiming for non-degree social work programmes apply to the Social Work Admissions System.

Both organisations are at the same address as UCAS.

UCAS was formed in 1993 by the merger of the Universities Central Council on Admissions and the Polytechnic and Colleges Admissions Service.

The scale of its operations is huge. The UCAS Handbook lists more than 45,000 courses at 257 universities and colleges of higher education.

This year alone, 406,323 people

applied for university places through UCAS. Business and management studies was the most popular, attracting 131,776 applications.

The next most popular subject was computer science with 87,003 youngsters applying for courses, a 19.2% increase on last year. More than 6% of applications last year were from overseas students. …